The First 20 Pages

The First Twenty Pages
The First Twenty Pages

Writing a great story can be a mystery. When a writer compares a movie that cost 200 million dollars to a movie that cost 2 million dollars, it would seem that the more expensive movie would win out all the time. Not so.

A movie could have the best director, popular talented actors, fantastic special effects, and a great budget, but when the expensive movie is shown to the public, more often than not, it will fail, losing hundreds of millions of dollars. A bewildered writer might look at a movie and wonder what went wrong.

Its quite easy to break a story. After all, there are literally hundreds of decisions that have to be made while composing a novel or screenplay. With so many ways to destroy a good story, it can be difficult to discover what went wrong.

When a story goes bad, where do you look?
The most important part of your story is contained within the first twenty pages. If you’re story is broken, go back and look at the beginning of the story. The reason this is so is because there are so many things going on when a story opens.

The Beginning
When a story begins, several things must occur.
A writer must:

  • Introduce the setting.
  • Introduce the main character.
  • Demonstrate character flaws.
  • Hint at the hero’s backstory through a problem.
  • Introduce the opponent.
  • Introduce the quest and the desire line.
  • Introduce the theme.
  • Hook the audience.

With so many things going on, it can be difficult to do everything correctly without breaking the story. So when there is something wrong with your story, go back to the first twenty pages and make sure all of these things are handled well.

Action Steps
Take a look at the first part of your story and make sure these things are done well.

1. The Setting: Introduce the setting carefully, without boring the reader with too much exposition. Just show enough so that it isn’t confusing to the audience.

2. Main Character: The hero of the story should enter a story doing something. Make your hero admirable in some way.

3. Character Flaws: Demonstrate the hero’s main weakness through actions that harm the main character and if its a moral weakness, show how others are hurt too.

4. The Problem: When the story begins, the main conflict hasn’t occured, since the story worthy problem hasn’t been introduced yet. To overcome this, you need bridging conflict. This comes from a problem the hero is dealing with, which arises out of the character’s backstory. Be extremely careful when dealing with the character’s history, revealing only a tiny bit – enough to explain whats going on.

5. The Opponent: The antagonist must be shown near the beginning of the story so that the audience isn’t confused about who the opponent is. Remember in the movie Harry Potter where the hidden opponent Quirrell is introduced in the beginning?

6. The Quest: The desire line of the story is introduced through the Inciting Incident, which is something that happens in the beginning which turns the hero’s world upside down. Make the desire as intense as possible, since it must provides the fuel for the entire story.

7. The Theme: Take a look at the way the theme is introduced in your favorite books and movies. The theme is about why you are writing the story.

8. The Hook: Every story needs to have a good hook. Often, this is something unique in the story idea itself, but it can be other things. Pay close attention to the first paragraph of the story.

What to do now
Its a good idea to examine the first twenty pages of your story, even if you don’t think there are any problems with it. Most of the problems that occur in a story will come out of something mishandled in the early stages. Literary agents will generally look at the first 5 – 10 pages and this is usually enough for them to tell if the story is saleable. Asside from the final pages of your tale, the first twenty pages are the most important part of the story. Make sure your opening is the best you can make it.


– Mark O’Bannon


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